Registered with the Registrar of Newspapers for India under R.N.I 53640/91
Vol. XXX No. 1, April16-30, 2020
Through the incredible number of books and columns he authored, his espousing of numerous public causes, as founder of many institutions and as founder-editor of a highly respected journal, S. Muthiah had acquired a vast circle of friends and admirers. Even after a year of his passing away, they talk of him at every gathering. His signal contribution in several fields was one of the reasons for his iconic stature in public esteem. This fortnightly journal and the annual Madras Week celebration are standing tributes to this man who has become synonymous with Chennai.
Though a person of few words, seeming to believe that one should speak only to improve upon silence, he was an engaging conversationalist and yet always open to hear other’s experiences. To those who walked with him it was a flattering feeling to be in the company of such a willing listener. For Muthu, the evening walk along the Adyar bank was never to be missed for learning about people and events. After the walk on the Madras Club terrace overlooking the river, he lorded over a select group that, rather irreverently, came to be hailed as the “veranda mafia”. An eminent doctor, a cricket’s statesman, an industrialist, a pithamaha among the Indian sahibs of the East India Company’s successor English companies and a relatively younger management consultant completed the group’s arsenal of talent and experience. They discussed the problems of all fields of activity and found instant solutions. Muthu was socially very active and it was a rare evening when he had no speech to make, no event to preside over or no party to be a part of. He never missed them. This close touch with a cross section of society gave him a deep understanding of people that must have honed his ability to tell a human story with great elan.
Muthu was a good listener because he believed that everyone had something to say that could not but touch some of his wide range of interests. It was in one of these walking conversations that he decided that there was need for a book on organisational culture and management styles in India during the British days. The last few Englishmen lingered on till the late sixties marking the end of an era. Muthu sensed an urgency to work on this project because Indians, who had worked with Englishmen and succeeded them in the fifties and sixties to senior positions in large corporations, were in their eighties posing a risk of their reminiscences being lost forever. With enormous energy, and using his contacts, he identified over forty Indian “boxwallahs” and had their experiences and insights recorded. As editor of the book which was launched in a record time of twenty four months, he wrote its Introduction which itself is a masterpiece. It surveyed the management scene in the English days, highlighting its unique features, in one magnificent sweep reflecting his understanding of organisational issues. Since then, several of the contributors to the book have, sadly, passed away. Muthu proved to be right in his haste. The book titled Office Chai, Planter’s Brew would easily rank as a significant contribution from Muthu to literature on management studies in India. Works of senior managers of those days are available but are autobiographically oriented, whereas Muthu’s book focused on practices, cultures, systems, structures and on how the English responded to the new challenges and opportunities in a free India.
Muthu encouraged his friends to write their experiences. He believed that everyone had a story to tell and quite a few good ones at that. He told those in whom he saw some writing aptitude or who had an interesting story to tell to “just write 500 words a day”. And writing was his own passion. When he was not physically at it, he was thinking of the theme for the next Hindu weekly column or the next book project or of the title for the work he had completed. An apt title often took days to emerge to match a writing that had already been finished. To him, the title must sum up the content, evoke reader-interest and yet be pithily short. He would have considered and rejected several alternatives before the final selection.
The restless inner being in him was constantly in search of new subjects that would be of interest to the reading public. In his last months, one that fired his imagination was the story of Binny’s. He was even toying with possible titles – The Rise and Fall of the Binny Empire was one. Binny was one of the largest companies in the country, located in Madras, that is Chennai, employing tens of thousands. The Chennai location of this institutional story was a factor that explains, in retrospect, his wanting to write about it. In his last days, he did nurse a feeling of disappointment that he could not put things together to do it.
Overtaken by illness, he was working simultaneously on two important book projects. He carried on, regardless, from his hospital bed. He completed one, his last hurrah, and very nearly finished the other. The one completed was launched a few weeks after his demise. It was the history of sports in Tamil Nadu, commissioned by the Tamil Nadu Olympic Association.
It seemed that the circle was being completed. Muthu started out, over sixty years ago, as a sports journalist in Ceylon, now Sri Lanka. He now worked from his bed to complete a sports book as if he was in a race with Time to join the end to the beginning into an eternal circle that subsumes the illusive beginnings and ends. He, indeed, ended up producing a monumental work on the history of over forty sports in the State that nurtured him in his last forty years. This book is bound to motivate children telling them about the State’s achievers and some with their rags-to-riches stories. He called it Tamil Nadu’s Quest for Gold. In his time, Muthu had accomplished much in terms of subject range, excellence of writing and sheer quantity of “Guinness-tic” proportion. The last launched book, the subject of which was very much after his heart, marked the grand end of his own Quest.